Commentary on Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Deuteronomy 34 recounts a major transitional period in biblical Israel’s history.
In the final chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, God’s servant Moses has died, but God did not leave the people leaderless. God appointed Joshua son of Nun as Moses’ successor to guide the next generation into the promised land.
Moses’ death comes after a forty-year journey in the wilderness when they had come to the plains of Moab. Although God promised to go before the Israelites on their sojourn to Canaan, if it were not for Moses’ leadership and intercession on more than one occasion, the people would have been destroyed by God (Exodus 32:10), perished from hunger or thirst (Exodus 16:1-3; 17:1-7; Numbers 20:2-5), or been killed by their enemies (Exodus 17:8; Numbers 20:14-21; 21:21-35). Yet, Moses would not accompany the people as they prepared to enter the land. Instead, the narrator reports that before dying, Moses is only allowed to view the land from the top of Mount Nebo (also Pisgah) overlooking Canaan. Standing east of the Jordan, the text says that God showed Moses “the whole land” (Deuteronomy 34:1)—the north, southwest, and west. The scope of the details is described according to territorial boundaries by tribe, which have yet to be allotted. God reiterates that this is the land that God promised their ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In what is frequently described as the incident at the waters of Meribah in the wilderness of Zin, one of their wilderness stopovers, Moses and his brother Aaron rebel against God. The people complained to Moses and Aaron about the lack of water for them and their livestock to drink. God instructed the two to command water to come forth from a rock in the presence of the people assembled. Instead, Moses strikes the rock with a staff, which displeases God for not properly showing God’s holiness before the Israelites (Numbers 20:11-12). Thus, God pronounces that Moses and Aaron would not be allowed to cross into the Promised Land with the people. While some might find God’s judgment against Moses and Aaron just due to their disobedience, let us recall that God commanded Moses in Exodus 17:5-6 to strike the rock when the people grumbled about not having water to drink. Moses called the place at the time Massah and Meribah because “the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” Thus, he was doing as he was previously instructed.
Aaron died shortly after the Meribah incident and was buried atop Mount Hor (Numbers 20:22-29). Now we are at the point of Moses’ death and burial in Deuteronomy 34:5-6 in the long narrative arc of the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings. One should read Deuteronomy 34:1-12 alongside Numbers 27:12-23 for a fuller perspective of the events. There also, God sends Moses atop a mountain to view the land that God promised to the Israelites with the declaration that once he had done so, like his brother, he too would die on account of his rebelliousness in the wilderness of Zin. The phrase “to be gathered to your people” is used both for Aaron and Moses to express their deaths. Given that neither man is literally buried among their ancestors in a permanent family sepulcher or grave, this idiom is likely figurative to refer to a spiritual abode where their ancestors were believed to dwell and should not be taken for the New Testament final place of judgment by eternal fire.
According to the account in Deuteronomy 34:5, Moses’ death took place immediately after he viewed the land of Canaan. He was buried in an undisclosed location in a valley in the land of Moab (34:6). The narrator reports that Moses died at the age of 120 with his eyesight unimpaired and still full of vigor, a detail all the more significant given that he was able to climb Mount Nebo on his own accord. This notice is of note, given that Moses declared in Deuteronomy 31:2 that now that he was 120 years old, he was no longer able to get about. He was thus preparing the people for his death and for Joshua’s leadership. The people mourned Moses’ death for thirty days.
Joshua son of Nun is Moses’ successor. Joshua was selected to succeed Moses as the leader of the Israelites at the request of Moses for fear that he would die without anyone to lead the people into Canaan. Moses asked God to appoint someone over the congregation to “go out before them and come in before them” (Numbers 27:16-17) like a shepherd who leads a flock of sheep. God commanded Moses to take Joshua, a man who was filled with God’s spirit, and commission him by laying hands on him before the priest Eleazar and all the congregation (27:18-19). Thus, Moses gives Joshua some of his authority so that the people will obey him after Moses’ death. Deuteronomy 34:9 describes Joshua as having received the spirit of wisdom from Moses, specifying that wisdom rather than the spirit of divination was required as he finally stepped in to follow Moses in office.
The concluding words of Deuteronomy are a fitting eulogy to the man Moses, who was a prophet par excellence. The narrator recounts that there was no prophet like Moses before or since. The notice that no other prophet had the distinction of knowing God face-to-face (Deuteronomy 34:10; see also Exodus 33:11) should not overlook the tradition that the only legitimate prophets were prophets like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-22). Yet Moses was still regarded as unequaled except to God in the signs and wonders and mighty deeds that he performed in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 34:11; see also Exodus 6:1; 7:3). Whether or not Joshua will meet this standard in the eyes of the people is yet to be seen.